Antonio Meucci’s “Teletrofono”: The True Story Behind the Invention of the Telephone

When, around the spring of 1989, I was told by a journalist that that year was the 100th anniversary of Antonio Meucci’s death (which occurred in Staten Island, New York, on October 19, 1889), I inquired among the more important Italian telecommunications organizations – manufacturers, service providers, universities and professional societies – to ascertain whether they had in mind to celebrate that anniversary. The answer was negative.

At that time, my knowledge about Meucci was superficial. I only knew that he was a Florentine who had emigrated to the United States and that he had had a minor role in the process that led to the invention of the telephone. I imagined that his contribution should not have been so important, as everybody acknowledged Alexander Graham Bell, a Scottish immigrant to Canada and later the United States, as the inventor of the telephone.

I must also say that in my thirty-seven years as a researcher in the field of telecommunications I had learned a lot from Bell Laboratories, where I could also count many friends, often met at international conferences. Hence, I was pretty inclined to believe that A. G. Bell must have deserved his fame and fortune, since such a wonderful organization stemmed from his intuition and pioneering work. So what about Meucci? At the time, I did not have in mind to do any research on Meucci: I was just curious to see why so many important Italian organizations had determined not to get involved in any celebration concerning his contribution to the invention, however marginal, of the telephone. To explore this, I asked the librarian of the organization where I was working, CSELT (Centre of Studies and Laboratories of Telecommunications – the equivalent of Bell Laboratories in Italy) to find me some literature, just to get a rough idea on the matter.

A few days later, he put a pile of books and magazines on my desk and disappeared, after displaying an enigmatic smile. I shouted at him as he left: “Do you think that I’ll go through all this?” Indeed, I was then very busy with my work at CSELT. At home during the weekend, I started browsing through the papers.

Among them was a 130-page book, authored by an engineer, Luigi Respighi, and published by the Italian CNR (National Research Council) in 1939, titled Il Telefono 柬a Priorit�i Antonio Meucci (The Telephone Primacy of Antonio Meucci). At first sight, it seemed to me that it contained an honest analysis of Meucci’s achievements, largely based on research conducted in 1932 in the United States by a law scholar, Dr. Francesco Moncada. I also learned that Guglielmo Marconi, who was President of Italy’s CNR from 1927 to 1937, had commissioned Florence’s Galileo Laboratories to reconstruct Meucci’s two most important telephone models (dated 1857 and 1867 respectively), to be sent to the International Exhibition in Chicago. This exhibition was held in the month of March 1933, and the Italian pavilion at that exhibition displayed two of Meucci’s telephones along with an enlarged photograph of a page from The Chicago Tribune from November 9, 1885. The article aroused my interest.

On July 4, 1989, I sent a circular letter to some twenty prominent persons in the telecommunications field explaining the reasons why Meucci’s anniversary should not be allowed to fall into oblivion and inviting their views. The only positive response came from Pier Luigi Bargellini, retired chief scientist of Comsat Laboratories. A Florentine like Meucci, Bargellini took interest in my proposal and, as he resided in the USA, he immediately provided me with copies of a dozen American papers and copies of Bell’s telephone patents. I also learned that, contrary to Italy, in the United States the Italian community of New York not only intended to properly celebrate the 100th anniversary of Meucci’s death, but that it had already celebrated, earlier that same year, the anniversary of his birth, by inaugurating in “Meucci Square” in Brooklyn, a stone memorial with the inscription “Antonio Meucci, 1808-1889, Father of the Telephone, First US Patent Caveat 3335, December 28, 1871.”

Antonio Meucci’s Youth in Florence
Antonio Meucci was born in Florence on April 13, 1808. His father, Amatis, was a civil servant of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, with a big family to feed (he had nine sons from his wife Maria Domenica) and a small income. Nevertheless, he managed to have his eldest son Antonio admitted to the Accademia di Belle Arti (Academy of Fine Arts) in 1821 at the age of thirteen. Antonio remained in the Academy for six years. At that time the Academy had undergone a major change, which consisted of the introduction of many scientific subjects along with traditional ones.

The young Meucci thus attended, in addition to the basic schools of the Academy, the schools of Chemistry and Mechanics, the latter encompassing all of the known physics of the time. “Electrology” was, at the time, the latest branch of physics, encompassing electrostatics as well as the newly born galvanism, or new electricity, following Galvani’s and Volta’s discoveries. Antonio was fond of chemistry, a passion that he was to cultivate all his life.

While attending the Academy, Meucci found a job as civil servant at the gates of Florence. He also held occasional jobs as a technician with various theatres in the city. A few years after completing his studies, in October 1833, he was hired at Florence’s Teatro della Pergola as assistant to the chief engineer by the famous theatre impresario Alessandro Lanari. It is worth noting that, as the theatre of the Court, the Teatro della Pergola was not only the most important theatre in Florence, it also represented a milestone in the history of theatre architecture worldwide. With it “Italian style” theatre had come into existence nearly two centuries earlier. During his tenure at the Pergola, Meucci constructed an acoustic pipe, with a speaker at one end and an ear-trumpet at the other, that was used to transmit orders to the stagehands working above.

Between 1833 and 1834, Antonio Meucci was involved in conspiracies for the liberation of Italy and served many months in jail with the famous patriot Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi. Upon his release, he was under constant surveillance by the police of the Grand Duchy.

On August 7, 1834, he married Esther Mochi, a costume maker in the theatre’s tailor shop. In the fall of 1835, another renowned theatre impresario, Don Francisco Mart럹 Torrens, came to Florence in search of talented artists with the aim of introducing Italian Opera, then at the apex of its popularity, to Havana, Cuba. He offered Antonio Meucci the job of chief engineer, and his wife Esther the job of chief costume designer in the magnificent Gran Teatro de Tac?n Havana. The Meuccis readily accepted and boarded a ship for Havana.

Meucci’s First “Speaking Telegraph”
The fifteen years spent by Meucci and his wife in Havana were the happiest and wealthiest of their life. Esther alone earned $60 a month, plus some $1,500 in bonuses yearly. Very often prima donnas presented her with jewels and other expensive gifts. Antonio did certainly earn much more, but he used to spend all his money – and often part of his wife’s – on costly experiments. This notwithstanding, when they left Havana for New York in 1850, the Meuccis brought with them the notable sum of twenty-six thousand pesos fuertes, the equivalent of some $500,000 today. While he lived in Havana, Meucci occupied an annex of the Tac?heatre which he converted into a large laboratory. He utilized this laboratory as a factory from 1844 to 1848, employing a dozen workers for electroplating swords, helmets and other military supplies, for the Cuban government.

To this end, he purchased over sixty Bunsen batteries from the firm of Negretti & Zambra of New York and other electrical supplies. At the time, no significant electroplating facilities existed in the Americas; therefore, objects to be electroplated were generally sent to Paris or London. Meucci, however, was able to do the job at a much lower cost and with affordable quality.

Since each theatrical season lasted from about October to May, Meucci could enjoy many months of leisure. He spent considerable time studying the latest discoveries in electricity, such as electrochemistry, animal electricity and electrotherapy in particular.

In 1848 Meucci began experimenting with electrotherapy, in cooperation with some local physicians, to ascertain whether some recent theories on animal electricity and magnetism, proposed by the Austrian Franz Anton Mesmer and the Frenchman Abb矐ierre Bertholon, could be applied to medicine. Using the Bunsen batteries of his electroplating factory, he set up a simple scheme. By applying electricity to a patient, and inserting himself in series with the patient, according to the above theories, Meucci hoped to tell what ailed the patient.

These are the words Meucci used to describe his experiment, taken from his deposition at the Bell/Globe trial in 1885: “A man in my employment, somewhere around 1849, complained of being sick, and I thought to try electricity on him … I called to him to put the copper part of the instrument in his mouth …” In another room Meucci determined the intensity of the shock, according to the number of Bunsen batteries used. “The man, while he had the copper in his mouth, cried out from the effects of the shock. I thought I heard this sound more distinctly than natural. I then put this copper of my instrument to my ear, and heard the sound of his voice through the wire. This was my first impression, and the origin of my idea of the transmission of the human voice by electricity … and I gave it immediately the name of “speaking telegraph.”

Meucci probably thought that the sound of the patient’s yell had reached his ear via his copper spatula through an electrostatic effect, as in a leaf electrometer, which he was familiar with. He may have also speculated some kind of electrical effect in the mouth of the patient (variable resistance between the tongue and the saliva in his oral cavity, perhaps). But he could not risk harming the patient again. Having been educated under Galileo’s teaching of “provando e riprovando” (“try and try again”), he began a series of trials aimed at improving his first result, without the patient being traversed by any current.

In later experiments he would cover the patient’s as well as his implement with a paper cone, to get some acoustic gain, as with his acoustic tube at the Pergola Theatre. He repeated the experiment many times, in different conditions, but he got worse results than in his first experiment. In his words, “I received the sound of the word; not distinct, but a murmur, an inarticulate sound.”

Indeed, he was now working with a true “static telephone,” that is, with both an electrostatic transmitter and receiver, having abandoned his rudimentary, but powerful (though harmful), variable resistance transmitter in the mouth of the patient. He had also reduced the voltage employed, thus reducing the electrostatic effect.

In the United States of America
In 1847 Don Francisco Mart럹 Torrens gradually withdrew from his theatre enterprise in Havana. Meanwhile, Meucci was looking to develop his inventive capabilities in a more dynamic place. He therefore left Havana with his wife on April 23, 1850, for New York, where they arrived on May 1, 1850. They went to live in Clifton, Staten Island, about five miles south of Manhattan, where they were to remain for the rest of their lives. Upon his arrival in New York, Meucci was confronted with a new and unexpected situation. The so-called Italian colony in New York, in whose midst he was welcome as perhaps the wealthiest and most respectable of the Italian immigrants, was mostly composed of political exiles – generally of high social classes, but often completely destitute of means. Meucci generously helped them and, when General Giuseppe Garibaldi, with his aide-de-camp Colonel Paolo Bovi Campeggi, also exiled from Italy, arrived in New York on June 30, 1850, he hosted them for several years in his cottage in Clifton. On the suggestion of the General, Meucci built a candle factory adjacent to his house, to offer employment to the many Italian exiles.

About the same year, his wife, Esther, aggravated her rheumatoid arthritis to the point that she could seldom leave her bedroom on the third floor of the house. Esther’s illness stimulated Meucci’s research on the “speaking telegraph,” as it would allow her to communicate with him and others from her bedroom. Thus, Meucci established a telephone link from Esther’s room to the basement (where there was a kitchen and a small laboratory) as well as to a larger laboratory in the yard. To call attention, a traditional mechanical call bell was used, its wires running parallel to those of the telephone. Only one instrument was used at each end, that was alternatively brought to the ear or mouth of the user. Meucci developed many telephone models, steadily improving the quality of speech transmission from that of his rudimentary static telephone of Havana. According to his deposition at the Bell/Globe trial, he came to satisfactory results between 1858 and 1860, after constructing an electromagnetic instrument. Meucci recorded the results of his experiments in a 63-page laboratory notebook, referred to in the records of the Bell/Globe trial as Meucci’s Memorandum Book. It is considered the single most important piece of evidence establishing Meucci’s many contributions to the conception of the telephone system.

Meucci began looking for capitalists to invest in his invention and to pay for a patent. He entrusted a friend of his, Enrico Bendelari, a wealthy merchant, to seek them in Italy. But these came to naught. The main reason for Bendelari’s failure was the same one which confronted both Samuel Morse and A. G. Bell, namely people’s disbelief. Even the Scientific American of June 9, 1877, determined that Bell’s telephone “does not appear to us to possess, as it now stands, any advantages,” reiterating, in its issue of October 6, 1877, that same was nothing more than “a beautiful scientific toy.” Thus, business men were deaf and blind towards the telephone in 1860, as they would still be in 1877.

Given the lack of interest, around 1861 Meucci resolved to publish his invention in L’Eco d’Italia, an Italian newspaper in New York. Unfortunately, this publication could not be exhibited at either the Bell/Globe or the US/Bell trial. The relevant files on the premises of L’Eco d’Italia, as well as Meucci’s personal copy, were destroyed by fire. Advertisements to retrieve said issue were published in 1885 by L’Eco d’Italia, also promising $100 reward, but to no avail. In the meantime, the news of Meucci’s invention reached a diver, who, around 1872, asked Meucci to construct a special telephone to allow him, when working underwater, to communicate with the mother ship. Four pages in Meucci’s Memorandum Book deal with his “marine telephone,” as he called it. He wrote that the instrument was connected by a twisted insulated copper wire, housed inside the mask of the diver, and running inside the rubber tube conveying air to the diver, while the man on board the ship would wear two equal receivers fixed on his ears, in order to be able to freely use his hands, to fulfill the requests of the deep-sea diver.

From all the above, it appears that, towards the end of 1870, Meucci’s invention was ripe enough to be tested in the field and eventually brought to public use. Unfortunately, in one of his frequent trips to New York, probably in search of backers, Meucci was involved in one of the most appalling disasters of the century.

On July 30, 1871, at 1:15 PM, while he was on board the Westfield II, a ferry-boat bound for Staten Island, the boilers exploded, resulting in sixty dead and more than two hundred injured. Meucci was severely scalded. In the words of his wife “he only saved his life by placing his hands over his face; but his hands, head, neck and body were badly scalded, all his skin pealing off, and all his hair falling from his head.” He was confined to a bed, between life and death, for three months. During his recovery, his wife was compelled to sell to a junk dealer all of Meucci’s electrical and telephone apparatuses for a few dollars, in order to cope with medical expenses and the necessities of life.

Meucci’s slow recovery was accompanied by total poverty. The county’s Overseer of the Poor granted him a couple of dollars per week and many of his friends helped him in various ways.

During Meucci’s long convalescence, one of his friends, the notary public Angelo Bertolino, managed to find three partners, A. A. Tremeschin, A. Z. Grandi, and S. G. P. Breguglia, who decided to form a partnership with Meucci to promote his invention. Tremeschin was a builder, Grandi was the Secretary of the Italian Consulate in New York and Breguglia was the keeper of the cigar stand at the renowned Hoffmann Caf矯n New Street, facing the New York Stock Exchange. On December 12, 1871, they formed the “Telettrofono Company.” Meucci may have rejoiced upon the signature of this agreement: it could be the crowning of his efforts, a promise for a radiant future and possibly the end of his misery.

He then prepared a description of his invention. Angelo Bertolino put it into English, and on December 16, 1871, they took it to a patent lawyer, Thomas Drew Stetson, to prepare an application for a patent. Stetson said it would cost $250 (about $4,250 today), but Meucci’s partners did not follow through on their commitment and refused to supply the money for the patent, except for Breguglia, who gave Meucci $20, the cost of a caveat. The caveat, titled “Sound Telegraph,” was filed in the Patent Office on December 28, 1871.

At the beginning of 1872, the “Telettrofono Company” encountered more difficulties. A.Z. Grandi, probably because of his travels, withdrew from the partnership and sold his share to Breguglia. The latter passed away a few months afterwards and, at about the same time, Tremeschin left the United States to definitively return to Italy.

The partnership was practically dissolved. Before his death, however, Breguglia had introduced Meucci to Edward B. Grant, Vice President of the American District Telegraph Company of New York, in the hope that the latter would allow Meucci to perform the necessary field trials of his “speaking telegraph” on the lines of the company. Grant promised he would manage to do what he was asked.

Once more, Meucci prepared a description of his system, promptly translated into English by Angelo Bertolino, added a copy of his caveat and his drawings, and delivered the whole to E. B. Grant. After two years, Grant told Bertolino that he could not acquiesce to the request and that he had lost all the papers. Meucci was able to renew his caveat in December 1872 and also in December 1873. However, he could not find the money for the third renewal, due on December 28, 1874. Hence, shortly before 1875, his caveat expired.

It was a pity because, in the words of the Patent Office Examiner in charge of receiving applications in the Department of Electricity: “Had Mr. Meucci’s caveat been renewed in 1875, no patent could have been issued to Bell.” On April 6, 1875, Alexander Graham Bell was granted the patent for the “multiple telegraph,” which sent two signals at the same time. On March 7, 1876, the U.S. Patent Office granted Bell a patent covering, the method of, and apparatus for, “transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sounds.”

Striving for Recognition
The news of Bell’s patents on the telephone began to spread in 1877. Meucci wrote his lawyer to inquire on the matter. But severely limited by language and having no money to pay legal fees, he was left to founder.

During this period, a young man, Leonard Cunningham, who used to help Meucci with English correspondence, tried to find backers to support Meucci’s claims. In 1880, Angelo Bertolino called on Meucci with a Colonel William Bennett, who promised support and advised Meucci to reconstruct, at Bennett’s expense, all his telephone models that had been sold by his wife during his illness. In the same year, Angelo Bertolino notarized some twenty-four affidavits (some quoted above) of people who had known of, or spoken through, Meucci’s telephones and/or could testify. All this was, evidently, done in view of an inevitable struggle with the Bell Company. On April 25, 1883, Meucci entrusted the New York law firm of Lemmi & Bertolino to legally protect his claims. Shortly after, the law firm received a proposal for purchasing Meucci’s rights from a subsidiary of the American Bell, the Mexican Bell Telephone Company, with headquarters in Boston, Mass., in the same building as the American Bell. Other calls were made directly by the American Bell, who hinted at a value of one million dollars for Meucci’s invention. These offers, however, were considered as aiming “to get rid” of Meucci’s claims and were refused.

Another belated offer by Edward B. Grant was also refused. An offer by a syndicate composed of William W. Goodwin, James Work and Robert R. Dearden of Philadelphia (all of them shareholders of the Globe Telephone Company of New York) and Alfred P. Willoughby of Chicago, was accepted, and on September 22, 1883, Meucci transferred all his rights for his invention to them. Following that agreement, the Globe Telephone Company upheld the prestige of Meucci both in the press and in public exhibitions, such as the Philadelphia Exhibition of 1884, where two of Meucci’s telephone models, dated 1857 and 1867 respectively, were displayed. They also issued a circular in which Meucci’s invention was amply illustrated with several drawings.

Meucci was designated as the Electrician of the Company and his name was carved on the plaque at the main entrance of Globe’s offices in the Mills Building, 15 Broad Street, New York. Although we do not know of any extra amount paid by the Globe Company to Meucci (the deed of transfer only mentioned a $1 consideration), we presume that, at least, Meucci was relieved of his deep state of indigence during his remaining years after 1883.

In September 1885, the Globe Telephone Company joined other companies opposing the American Bell monopoly, addressing to the US Government a petition to annul the two main Bell patents on the grounds that they had been obtained by fraud, and claiming Meucci’s priority. The Department of the Interior held public hearings in Washington, DC, in November 1885 to hear arguments from the petitioners as well as from American Bell. The hearings were chaired by the Secretary of the Interior, Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar.

The conclusions reached, after the various arguments were presented, were against American Bell. The recommendation by Secretary Lamar, on January 14, 1886, was that a suit be instituted by the Government of the United States against the American Bell Telephone Company and Alexander Graham Bell to annul the Bell patents. Attached to the recommendation to the Department of Justice were transcripts of the various arguments heard and about sixty exhibits. Among the latter were forty affidavits in favour of Meucci, as well as certified copies of Meucci’s caveat, all of Meucci’s patents (for other inventions), and the Telettrofono Company agreement. But while the hearings were being held at the Department of the Interior, the American Bell Company brought suit against the Globe Company in a Circuit Court of New York for patent infringement. On July 19, 1887, a sentence against the Globe Company and Meucci was issued by Judge William J. Wallace in New York, the same judge who had already decided four times in favour of the Bell Company against other claimants. On October 12, 1888, the Globe Company appealed to the Supreme Court.

For a long time, the Bell Company publicized the New York Court decision, which ruled in its favour. The records of this trial are available from several sources. In particular, Meucci’s deposition is available in print in many public libraries. Therefore, anyone can read how the Bell lawyers defeated the Globe Company and Antonio Meucci. The Bell people, however, neglect to say that, long before the Bell Company sued the Globe Company and Meucci for patent infringement, the US Government had filed a suit against the Bell Company and Alexander Graham Bell for fraud, collusion and deception. In other words, the US Government was on the side of Meucci, as it set out to prove that Meucci, and not Bell, had invented the electromagnetic telephone. But the action of the Government, hampered by the obstructionism of the Bell lawyers, dragged on for twelve years up to the end of 1897 (eight years past Meucci’s death), without resolving the underlying question of who had priority over the invention of the telephone. Moreover, the record of this trial was never printed and is now only available, with difficulty, from the National Archives, mostly in typescript or manuscript, and spread among different record groups and cities.

Then Attorney General Judson Harmon recommended to the US Congress that the US/Bell suit be terminated on the best terms obtainable for both parties, on account of the enormous expenditure sustained. The proceedings were formally closed, on November 30, 1897, with no costs or consequences to either party, the American Bell covenanting not to take advantage of the agreement. The Globe appeal to the Supreme Court had been dismissed on March 10, 1892, two and a half years after Meucci’s death.

Without the English translation of Meucci’s Memorandum Book – complete with drawings – and without many other affidavits buried in the mass of the (never printed) proceedings of the suit instituted by the US Government towards annulling the basic Bell patents on the telephone, our conclusions might be different. The examination of Meucci’s notes in his Memorandum Book, as well as his drawings should convince the most skeptic reader that Meucci deserves to be considered one of the most innovative telephone pioneers. The charge by the Bell Company’s lawyers that Meucci’s Memorandum Book was a forgery can be demonstrated as groundless, being impossible for Meucci to falsify, in 1862-70 – and notarize in 1885 – discoveries that were to be made in 1900 or later. In fact, his notes and drawings regarding the telephone lines were so advanced, that even disregarding the date affixed to each of them by Meucci, they would pre-date any similar innovations made by others after his notebook’s translation was notarized.

Antonio Meucci’s discoveries are ahead of the times by as much as thirty years. His notes prove how complete and deep was his conception of the telephone system.

Basilio Catania is the author of the four-volume work, Antonio Meucci: The Inventor and His Times.

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 3.

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